The Toronto I moved to nearly two decades ago seemed like a marvel of historic preservation. There were entire neighbourhoods such as Cabbagetown, The Annex, Little Italy and many others that were and are celebrated for retaining their historic character. Gems like Union Station and Old City Hall, once at risk of being torn down, have been saved because of community outcry. Civic activism in Toronto is strong and has a long history, and it made this a good place to live. A heritage of heritage, if you will.
I’ve heard people in just about every city I’ve been to say something along the lines of, “our city is the worst for tearing down historic buildings.” Toronto is no different: all it takes is the loss of one or two really beloved buildings to give this impression. Much has been saved though.
However there is often an abuse of what heritage means that seems primarily motivated to keep other people out. Last year, there was the fight over a daycare in Cabbagetown where, it was in part argued, strollers on the porch would clash with the historic character of the neighbourhood. Just last week some Toronto councillors defended voting against allowing a second front door for a secondary unit such as a basement apartment because it would clash with neighbourhood “character.”
Never mind some of these councillors preside over neighbourhoods that have a wide variety of very different architectural styles and where McMansions with as many faux Ionic columns as possible and garages with multiple doors are all permitted.
When notions of heritage and character are so abused and narrowly defined I lose interest in the cause, and it most certainly must alienate the next generation of potential heritage advocates who are currently struggling to even live in this city.
That’s why the new, year-in-the-making “State of Heritage” report from Heritage Toronto, the charitable City of Toronto agency that celebrates and advocates for the city’s heritage, is refreshing as it expands both what heritage means and its responsibility to a growing city.
Called “Changing the Narrative,” the first of its three themes examines how heritage promotes social cohesion. That is, a sense of togetherness and belonging. All those historic plaques are important. Learning the history of a place connects us to it, like a kind of mental investment. More important is making sure that as many stories and people are represented, an evolving challenge for a city like Toronto.
The report highlights the Ogimaa Mikana (Reclaiming/Renaming) Project as a successful way to expand whose story is represented on the streets. Started as a guerrilla project with stickers that changed the names of streets like Davenport and Spadina to Anishinaabemowin place names, Indigenous names are now an official part of some signage programs in Toronto and Ontario.
Another theme the report examines is the relationship between heritage and sustainability. Heritage has sometimes focused on built things, but this report includes “terrestrial natural heritage” as being equally important, and also looks at how parks can also be venues for historical interpretation.
A third theme looks at the connection between heritage and economic development. Heritage makes places more attractive, not just to potential tourists, but also by improving the quality of life of those of us who live here. If we feel like we belong, we’re more inclined to take care of the place or even invest in it. It’s not a surprise, then, that local Business Improvement Areas will often start projects, such as commissioning murals, that promote local heritage, as way of creating an environment that people want to hang out in and where new businesses might want to open.
This section of the report also looks at how the adaptive reuse of old buildings, as opposed to tearing them down and building from scratch, can sometimes save money. It highlights the recent demolition of the Davisville Jr. Public School, a mid-century beauty that potentially will cost $3 million more to build anew rather than renovating. Adaptive reuse is also related to sustainability, as a Treehugger.com article argues, “the greenest building is the one already standing.”
The most critical part of the report, for me, is a call to: “Promote new, inclusive uses of heritage properties that meet current and future residential and commercial needs.”
This is something the heritage community needs to explore even more. We are a city with a housing crisis. Heritage and all its related concerns cannot mean freezing the city like a museum exhibit and preventing new housing, whether it’s a basement suite with a front door, a stacked townhouse, a new affordable rental apartment building or even a condo.
If heritage means “no” its community of advocates will shrink and it will become irrelevant to a generation where houses and home ownership, Cabbagetown Victorian or otherwise, are out of reach and seem outright hostile to their ability to live here.
There’s much more in the report, go to the Heritage Toronto website and dig into it yourself. There’s a lot more stories to tell in Toronto.
Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef